{Dev}fest 2014: How I evolved into a better person and programmer

So, I’ve been gone for a week. I have literally been disconnected from social media and from my friends and usual coursework for a week.There’s a hacking/app-developing fest that happens here for a week and I participated in it for the first time. It was an interesting, exhausting and draining experience, but I have emerged from the experience with a boost to my self-esteem and some serious resume credentials. I don’t mean to brag, but it seems that the complete detachment from the human world for a week has left me with several ideas that I want to say. For the record, I am running on two hours of sleep and I have written code for approximately 86 hours cumulatively. Therefore, please excuse me for any errors that may inadvertently happen.

It’s a beautiful feeling. That delicious joy of exhaustion, fulfillment and creating something entirely new and your own. The joy of watching your effort work. The joy of creating a tool that will make everything so much more accessible and awesome and in an infinitesimal, but important way, contribute to the continuum that is human progress.

I had several different feelings about joining this project. I know that I am somewhat capable of writing code, but I always had the assistance of homework or a syllabus to structure my learning. This leaves me somewhat sensitive to the fact that despite all my years of experience, I have felt under-accomplished. As it turns out, there are several friends in my friend group who are programmers. All of them decided to go ahead and register for the project without asking for me. I was quite upset about it because I thought they were insidiously (or not) implying that I wasn’t competent enough to be a part of them. They were exclusively a group of six males, and this venture was supposed to be a “bro” thing. My friend justified that clearly, my presence was unwelcome for a completely different host of reasons beside my competence.

I struggled to come to terms with it somewhat, and though I understand the gender-normative requirements of “bro-time”, it still didn’t change the fact that I felt slurred. So I was determined to find a crazy, insanely hard project where I would be valued. I managed to come across a group of five graduate students working on a machine-learning system. Perfect. Not only could I be exposed to wisdom of the <ahem> not-so-ancient, but also I could get first-hand experience in something I’ve wanted to do in forever: machine learning. I was the youngest of the group for a while (we eventually picked up another undergraduate freshman to help us with HTML), but I was still the only girl in the group. Even though I felt immensely grateful for the opportunity to be in such an environment, I was also completely in awe of the people I worked with. We were going to design a three-dimensional recommendation system that would parse through all of the English articles in Wikipedia and based on a combination of some cutting-edge machine learning algorithms be able to fetch better articles.

For a while I thought my presence was unwelcome. All said and done, I’m a fresh-faced sophomore in a group of experienced graduate students. They’re basically doing me a favor by having me on board. So, I pushed myself constantly to deliver, to perform, even if the deliverable required of me were relatively mundane. There were times when it failed. I was required to use a programming language that didn’t have any sort of documentation on it whatsoever. We were taming the mutant beast formed from hodgepodge code of millions of free examples over the web.

My project lead told me that he was actually grateful that there was at least someone in the team who was always cheery and optimistic and funny, because without it working on such a complex, exhausting and immense project would have been difficult. My project lead is an amazing man. He is a visionary, a good human being, a kind soul and more so, an extremely charming man. He is also ambitious, driven and very receptive to feedback. Without him, I would have still been a pouting weenie. Now I call myself a programmer. We are one step closer to creating his dream, which is, in fact, our dream.

During the span of the week, I spent every day writing code from 6:00PM to 11:00PM. Combine that with the 24 hour hackathon the night before. I have learned HTML, CSS and Javascript (Three.js) in one week. I have re-drawn co-ordinate systems and made my math education worth its money, by squeezing out formula for transforming 2D co-ordinates to 3D, working with the changing geometry of shapes as a camera zooms into a screen and the co-ordinate system stretches out, staying patient while scraping the best I can off internet examples only and more so, working in a language that has no formal support system. I’m not saying our team was smooth and non-disruptive. We had our disagreements. We had our conflicts. We resolved whatever we could. We presented the final best of whatever we could. I realized that I wasn’t doing this immense project because I wanted recognition and credit, which was indeterminate. I was doing this simply because I loved it and I created it.

Our project demo wasn’t too spectacular, because our team lead was exhausted beyond measure and so were we. But I was still happy that I had participated and I knew that I had evolved into something else. We were presenting to some of the spectacular people in the industry of hacking and app-development and I was rather disappointed by fate that we were all so tired that we couldn’t make our final pitch properly.

Then two hours later, they announced the winners in different categories of the week-long Devfest. We were awarded the Andreessen Horowitz award for Most Technically Challenging Hack.

Yeah, people are talking about me now. I have the street cred I wanted. One of my friends from the “bro”gang went so far as to suggest that I should work for a company and start making money of my own already. I am admired and loved and envied and perhaps some combination of all of these or none at all. But I do know that I have finally tasted the pure joy of creating on the fly. Of recognizing a structured, final end-goal with limited unstructured resources. I have finally realized the pure unadulterated joy when your code compiles and your screen renders exactly what you imagine it to be. I have finally grown into that person who can shrug off what other people think of me. Only now, when people whom I have never known are congratulating me, have I realized just how empty the rest of the world is in relation to the goals I have accomplished in my mind.

I don’t know how else to say it without actually saying it. I have actually surpassed my own expectations as a person and as a programmer. I know that it is truly within me to strive for something higher and literally I am radiating gratitude to every force and being in this universe. Thank you for everything. Thank you truly, most sincerely, eternally for everything. For the friends I’ve made in this journey. For the incredibly talented people I’ve come across. For the person that I have now become. For the person that I am yet to become.


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